The 18th-century Robe Volante dress represented a significant shift in early 18th-century fashion. It moved away from the hourglass silhouette of Louis XIV's era by draping the bust with wide swaths of fabric that fell from the shoulder to the feet. This style was extremely popular at Versailles during the Regency of Philippe d'Orléans (1715-1723). However, inspired by the modest dressing gowns of the 17th century, the Robe Volante also faced considerable criticism for not accentuating the female form. As a result, from 1730 onwards, the Robe Volante gradually evolved into the Robe à la Française, which became the quintessential court dress throughout Louis XV's reign and until the late 1770s.


The pleats "à la Watteau"


The Robe à la Française retained the back folds of the Robe Volante, known as "à la Watteau" pleats, named after the painter who frequently depicted them in his portraits. 

The Two Cousins, by Antoine Watteau (1716)
 The Two Cousins, by Antoine Watteau (1716)



The dress's voluminous coat was drawn back into a double series of large flat pleats, which fell from the neckline to the feet and sometimes extended into a train.

 

The Two Cousins, by Antoine Watteau (1716)

L'enseigne de Gersaint, by Antoine Watteau (1720)




A structured bustline


The front of the Robe à la Française highlighted the feminine figure, with the dress worn over a whalebone bodice that structured the bust and neckline. The bodice ended in a point to emphasize the waist and hips.

The panels of the dress coat were folded on the sides of this fitted bust and were sometimes secured by "compères," or pieces of fabric sewn onto the inner edges of the dress and buttoned.


In this portrait, Madame de Pompadour also adds trimmings made of a ladder of ribbons tied over the stomacher.

Madame de Pompadour, par François Boucher (1758)

Madame de Pompadour, by François Boucher (1758)


The Panniers

The Robe à la Française also featured pagoda sleeves, which flared out on the forearm and had lace flounces sewn into the lapel. The dress coat's opening revealed the skirt, often made of the same fabric as the coat.

To give the skirt its characteristic volume, it was worn over a whalebone petticoat or panniers. The panniers' shape evolved from the bell-like Robe Volante, flattening at the front and back while widening at the sides, sometimes up to 2.5 meters. Due to its impractical width, this style was reserved for special occasions and court ceremonies.

Marie Antoinette in a white satin basket dress, by Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun (1778)

Marie Antoinette in a white satin basket dress, by Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun (1778)

The evolution to English garden dresses


The Robe à la Française was worn by high-ranking aristocratic women until the 1770s, with variations in ornamentation, richness, and fabric types. It encapsulated the Rococo aesthetic, where beauty was dynamic, and the undulating flowers of the fabric and sinuous silk chenille applications on the bodice corresponded to the swaying of the panniers as the wearer moved.


"This French dress alone sums up the rococo aesthetic for which beauty is necessarily dynamic; to the undulation of the flowers of the fabric, to the sinuous applications of the silk chenille on the bodice, corresponds the swaying of the basket when the woman moved."

Pascale Gorguet-Ballesteros, Robe à la française, Musée de la mode de la ville de Paris.

From 1770 onwards, new dress styles emerged, inspired by the country spirit of English dresses. These dresses were shortened to reveal the ankles and facilitate walking, and the bodices were softened for better movement and breathability. The Robe à la Française, once the epitome of the Rococo style but heavy and impractical, gradually fell out of fashion.

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